This is a first in a series of reviews posts about the St. John’s Red Storm men’s basketball team. They went 16-18 on the 2008-2009 season, with a 6-12 mark in conference, including a Big East Tournament win (and a loss in the CBI postseason tournament to the University of Richmond).
Today will be a look back on the team; expect to see individual player reviews around every other day or so, starting early next week.
We Are… St. Ouch
In 2007-2008, the narrative around the Red Storm team was that they were so very young, so inexperienced; that they needed to "learn how to win"; that they were whipped a lot but were improving and playing hard the whole game.
Hopes going into 2008-2009 centered around an improving squad of hard-working, conscientious young men who would put it all on the line, led by the senior Anthony Mason, the promising forward Justin Burrell, captained by quick and steady point guard Malik Boothe, with contributions from the solid DJ Kennedy and Paris Horne; and a possible comeback from Rob Thomas and improvements from Dele Coker.
What happened to the team is not a prelude to an excuse. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as Steinbeck quoted in Of Mice and Men. To wit:
- Anthony Mason... played 3 games before being sidelined with a torn peroneal tendon in his right foot, another in a line of injuries that have slowed him down the past 2 years.
- Justin Burrell... struggled at times with turnovers and finding his shot, a problem greatly exacerbated by a broken nose suffered in practice and the mask he wore for most of the rest of the season.
- Malik Boothe... his shot did not improve enough, and he struggled with turnovers even before he tore a tendon in his left hand; his backups fared poorly as the lead guards going into conference play.
With Great Injuries Come Great Opportunities
But in the injury carnage, DJ Kennedy proved to be a solid player willing to take tough shots (perhaps too many?) while passing like a backup point guard. Paris Horne was the team’s scoring star in the conference season, shooting 25% of the team’s shots while posting a very good field goal percentage (eFG, which accounts for 3-pointers, was 51.8%).
Sean Evans played an aggressive brand of offense down low, averaging 9.5 points (and 7.2 rebounds) in conference play. Rob Thomas provided additional aggression in the paint and a nice touch on putbacks. The dogged play earned the Red Storm a win over a ranked team (Notre Dame), and two wins over Georgetown (one being their first conference tournament win in years).
As a more mature team, the Red Storm upped the pace slightly (from zombie?) by a little more than 1 possession to 66.8 possessions a game and were slightly more efficient, scoring .94 points per possession. Which is not very good – they were 13th in the conference in scoring efficiency. But on paper, they scored 3.5 more points per game, due to having a chance at a shot more per game.
The effective field goal percentage was about the same, as they increased their efficiency on 2’s and lost efficiency on 3’s, and increasing their free throw rate slightly. All of this is despite having a league-high 9% of their shot attempts blocked in conference play.
The Johnnies created a little chaos on defense, stealing the ball on 11% of opponent possessions, better than the 9.5% they posted in 07-08. The one place where the team really showed improvement was in their offensive rebounding – the ultimate hustle and motivation stat – pulling down nearly 38% of their own misses. Sean Evans (11.7%, conf) and Rob Thomas (14.9%, conf) were monsters on the offensive glass. Despite the injuries and a continued lack of scoring efficiency, they hustled, or "battled," like Art Howe used to say.
The Anatomy of A Blowout
The stagnation of the offensive scoring was disappointing, but not as disturbing as the regression on defense and the turnovers on offense:
- The defensive rebounding took a hit; St. John’s corralled 68.8% of misses vs. 71.9% the previous year.
- The Red Storm had (in conference) the league’s highest turnover rate at 23.1% of possessions.
- Within that, 10.5% of their possessions were NOT steals; to phrase it another way, 45% of their turnovers were "unstolen" to coin a word.
- The opposition was more efficient (scoring 1.05 points per possession vs. 1.02), more efficient from outside the arc 38% on 3’s, a 2 percentage point increase. Those same opponents made 51.6% of the attempts inside the arc, the same percentage they made the year before.
- 16 of the 18 losses were by 10 points or more (the other losses were by 7 to Duke and 6 to Richmond).
To be fair, the defensive efficiency was 10th in the league in 2007-2008; it was 9th in the league in 2008-2009, indicating that the league as a whole shot better from the field. And the increased pace can make the losses look slightly worse than they are, even if they indicate a wide gulf between the better teams in the league and St. John’s.
Teams took the 3rd lowest number of three-pointers against the Red Storm*; and in rebounding, St. John’s might have just been part of a monstrous rebounding year for the league, where the Red Storm’s rebounding decline actually left them second best in the league at rebounding opponents’ misses.
The Space Between
Still, the regular conference season gap in points per 100 possessions (which we will use as efficiency: 100 * points per possession, so we have numbers higher than zero) was -12.1 in 2007-2008; and was -11.7 in 2008-2009.
In a year where the novices returned with some experience, playing against many of the same veteran names, same coaches, same teams, why couldn’t the Red Storm close the gap a little more?
From this post in March, I touched on how teams with the same coaches and returning players do not generally improve 12 efficiency points, and the disparity between efficiencies is a very good indicator of won-loss record.
The eternal optimist can find caveats – what if St. John’s has a year of Anthony Mason? What if Burrell and Boothe’s injuries really held back their performance? What if having actual backups at the point and shooting guard and wing, along with a possible dead-eye shot from the perimeter allow the players more rest and increased efficiency? Every year, there are so many what ifs.
There is a hope that with the loss of many impact players on teams around the league, and improvement/ team cohesion in the Red Storm, the Johnnies can move up in the Big East rankings. That concept will be addressed in many of the coming player profile posts - starting with the players with the least amount of average time on the floor to the most - and summed up in a few weeks' time. Until then, enjoy a look at a team of sophomores taking hold of their opportunities with varying degrees of success.
* Maybe the team needs to pack in the defense a little, instead of sending forwards out to the perimeter and trying to get them to recover to defend the paint. Just an idea.